This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Great Game of Business" by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What’s the book The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham about? What are the main takeaways?
In their book The Great Game of Business, Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham explore the principles of fostering employee ownership at work. They also examine the benefits and difficulties of implementing these principles and why they’re the solution to creating a successful business.
Read below for a brief overview of The Great Game of Business book.
The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham
In The Great Game of Business book, Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham propose that the best and most efficient way to create a successful business is by encouraging employees to take ownership—by encouraging them to see the company as theirs rather than just somewhere they work. If employees see the company as theirs, its success becomes their success as well—and people will work harder to ensure their own success than that of others, the authors imply. Thus, employees will have greater motivation to help the company succeed.
Stack is an author and the CEO of SRC Holdings Corporation. He’s been lauded as the “smartest strategist in America” by Inc. Magazine for his work promoting open-book management—a style of management that encourages accessibility, which we’ll discuss below. Stack wrote The Great Game of Business partly to explain how he took a failing division of International Harvester and turned it into a corporation comprising over 60 businesses. Stack believes his principles for leadership—what he refers to as the titular game of business—can help people at any level of a company increase productivity and success.
Bo Burlingham is editor-at-large at Inc. Magazine, an American business magazine. He has also published several books on business. Small Giants profiles small companies that have rejected the goal of constant growth in favor of more fulfilling business goals. His book Street Smarts, coauthored with Norm Brodsky, compiles advice on running a successful small business. After publishing The Great Game of Business, Stack and Burlingham co-authored a second book about employee ownership, A Stake in the Outcome.
In this guide, we’ve synthesized the authors’ principles into two keys to increasing employee ownership: accessibility and engagement. We’ll begin by defining each of these keys and outlining some of the common barriers to fostering ownership. Then, we’ll explore each key in detail, discussing the authors’ suggestions for encouraging them, the barriers that make doing so difficult, and the benefits of encouraging them anyway. In our commentary, we’ll compare the authors’ advice to that of other business experts, including John Doerr and Tony Hsieh, and we’ll examine how their suggestions intersect with psychological principles.
Defining the Two Keys to Employee Ownership
Encouraging ownership is crucial to fostering a successful business. According to Stack and Burlingham, the keys to ownership are accessibility and engagement.
We’re defining accessibility—which the authors call education—as employees having enough information to fully understand how their company operates. In fact, Stack and Burlingham maintain that every employee should have as much information about the company and its operations as upper management since employees can only be effective team members when they fully understand the company.
Engagement—which we’re defining as employees being active and interested at work—is equally important, the authors say. Engaged employees will care more about the company’s success and use the information you’ve given them to help the company succeed. On the other hand, unengaged employees may have the information they need to succeed, but they’ll be less likely to use it.
Barriers to Encouraging Ownership
Many companies don’t encourage ownership, despite its importance to maintaining a successful business. Stack and Burlingham explain that there are a number of reasons for this hesitance:
- Misplaced focus
- Lack of trust
- The myth of omniscience
The Benefits of Accessibility
Stack and Burlingham say the best way to encourage ownership is by making business accessible and engaging for employees. For the rest of the article, we’ll explore how accessibility and engagement help businesses succeed and examine the authors’ suggestions for encouraging them.
First, let’s discuss the merits of accessibility. Accessibility is sharing enough information that employees can fully understand how the company operates. The authors claim it has three main benefits:
- Enforced accountability
- Increased productivity
- Improved teamwork
According to Stack and Burlingham, there are three main steps to creating an accessible business: explaining the business, explaining the numbers, and keeping employees updated.
- Explain the business
- Explain the numbers
- Keep employees updated
The Benefit of Engagement
The second key to fostering employee ownership is engagement. We’ve defined engagement as employees being active and interested at work.
Stack and Burlingham explain that engagement helps companies succeed by unlocking employees’ true intelligence, creativity, and dedication. Engaged employees care about their jobs and the company they work for, so they’re more likely to use all their available faculties at work. This helps the company succeed because employees who use their full intelligence make better business decisions, while those who use their full creativity find innovative solutions to problems. Those with a strong sense of dedication work harder for the good of the company.
On the other hand, unengaged employees are at higher risk of losing motivation and becoming lethargic at work, Stack and Burlingham warn. They’re more likely to focus on completing their specific tasks and collecting their paycheck, rather than on the company’s success as a whole. As a result, they’re more likely to use the minimum intelligence, creativity, and dedication required to complete their tasks, leaving a wealth of potential untapped.
So, how can you cultivate employee engagement? According to the authors, one important factor is promoting accessibility: Businesses that are accessible are usually also more engaging because employees are constantly learning new, interesting information that helps them take an active role in the company.
(Shortform note: Accessibility is engaging because learning something new or mastering a skill releases a burst of dopamine, according to Raph Koster in A Theory of Fun For Game Design. This burst of dopamine generates pleasure and motivation, making employees more likely to learn more about the company and become more active in its operations in the hopes of earning another burst of dopamine.)
However, Stack and Burlingham maintain that accessibility is just the first step in generating engagement. We’ve synthesized his further suggestions for creating engagement into two main categories: setting goals and offering rewards.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Great Game of Business summary:
- The best and most efficient way to create a successful business
- Why employees should see the company as theirs rather than just somewhere they work
- The principles of fostering employee ownership